The Four Loves: Charity

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

I hope you’ve been enjoying the readings as much as I have. I send these weekly reminders out both as a little nudge to remind you to pick up the book and also as a quick overview of some of Lewis’s best insights in case you’re hopelessly busy and unable to get to this week’s reading.

This week we finish up The Four Loves with Lewis’s thoughts on agape (ἀγάπη — benevolent love). Older Bible translations sometimes rendered this word as charity, as does the King James in 1 Corinthians 13.

Interestingly to me, Lewis does not use the word agape at all in this chapter. He assumes his audience is well-educated enough to know that agape is the word underlying his commentary on charity.

I’m feeling a little under the weather today, so I’ll content myself with three quotes from the chapter and some very brief commentary on them.

I’ll begin with what may be Lewis’s most famous observation in The Four Loves — the inherent riskiness of love. If you read nothing else, read this and ponder it. It’s straight fire and stands on its own apart from the chapter.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (pages 823–824)

I also found this observation both helpful and challenging.

It remains certainly true that all natural loves can be inordinate. Inordinate does not mean “insufficiently cautious.” Nor does it mean “too big.” It is not a quantitative term. It is probably impossible to love any human being simply “too much.” We may love him too much in proportion to our love for God; but it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the man, that constitutes the inordinacy. (page 824)

Whenever I love someone or something more than God it is very likely the case that I do not love the rival too much but that I love God too little. There are exceptions, of course. There are some broken impulses which I might mistakenly label love and the solution there is not merely to love God more but also to repent of my aberrant attraction.

And I thought his observation on what the rare Biblical commands to hate mean was quite insightful:

Consider again, “I loved Jacob and I hated Esau” (Malachi I, 2–3). How is the thing called God’s “hatred” of Esau displayed in the actual story? Not at all as we might expect. There is of course no ground for assuming that Esau made a bad end and was a lost soul; the Old Testament, here as elsewhere, has nothing to say about such matters. And, from all we are told, Esau’s earthly life was, in every ordinary sense, a good deal more blessed than Jacob’s. It is Jacob who has all the disappointments, humiliations, terrors, and bereavements. But he has something which Esau has not. He is a patriarch. (page 825)

The entire section from which this last excerpt is taken is quite good — I recommend it highly even if you skim the rest of the chapter.

Next week we begin The Screwtape Letters!


Leave a Reply